Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre (Grove Press, 2002) uses the voice of an obnoxious sixteen year old for comic and pathetic effect. Vernon is suspected of having colluded with his best friend Jesus in a mass killing that took 36 teenage lives. Jesus did the crime. When Vernon realizes what his friend means to do after being bullyied by classmates, he tries to stop him. But too late. As he manages through bad decisions and bad luck to make himself look more and more guilty, as others collude around him (rather improbably—his mother’s ex-lover produces a weekly television show that shows an execution—the American public votes on which convicted murdered will die next), he runs away to Mexico, thinks he is going to have sex with a girl he has fantasized about throughout his entire adolescence, gets arrested and put on trial, and ultimately finds himself on death row. He ends up on the gurney, waiting for his lethal injection.
What troubles me about this book is authenticity, consistency, and moral appropriateness. (That phrase “moral appropriateness” seems suspect to me.) A review compared Vernon’s voice to that of Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield. That comparison attracted me to the book. Another review mentioned hilarious humor. Actually, although Vernon speaks or narrates in a continual patois of insults, puns, and caricatures, he’s not that funny. Are we supposed to laugh because he repeatedly uses the word “fucken.” Is this how he thinks the word is spelled, or pronounced, or just an act of rebellion against good spelling? Is this sight dialect? Why doesn’t he spell it “fuckin’, which is how I hear it? Is that how the British spell it? The deliberate misspelling is like a lot of the humor: artificial and forced. The tone and rhetoric in which Vernon speaks varies considerably. Occasionally he narrates with the intelligence and adult insight. At other times he sounds like a halfwit. What we do grow to understand is that he’s very intelligent, very damaged both by his family upbringing and by his friend’s murder of 36 schoolmates, very much alone. The mood varies from comic to potentially tragic. And moral appropriateness—well—exactly how appropriate is it to make comedy from the aftermath of the killing of 36 teenagers? Or of impending death by injection?
Characters are portrayed as cartoons, Vernon’s mother in particular. Although he loves her, he finds nothing positive about her.
The book seems a calculated sleight of hand, a deception, right down to the deus ex machina rescue from execution, Vernon’s mother’s new dish washer, and the beautiful young woman waiting for him across the street with the suitcase that he and she will take to Mexico. To make it all seem even more like a trick, the novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002.